I was surprised to read the message inside the mythical Boca Juniors’ La Bombonera Stadium. The year was 2003 and “los xeneizes” (the Genoeses), nickname given because the club was founded by Italian immigrants, were right at the top of South American football.
The word “xeneize” is used by Boca’s supporters. They like to call themselves “la mitad mas uno” (half plus one) to remember the rivals they are the majority among football fans in the country. For everyone else, they are “los bosteros” (shitty). A unfair rememberance about the smell surrounding the poor neighbourhood of La Boca, where is the stadium.
All that said, the “we do not accept new members” banner was a sign of power. No other club of the continent could even dream about doing the same. They needed any money they could get. Not Boca. In the begining of last decade, the squad guided by the great Carlos Bianchi won Copa Libertadores in 2000, 2001 and 2003. Four years later, they’d do it again even without the manager with the wizard aspect and nicknamed “el virrey” (the administrator).
The joke started to spread in Brazil: Libertadores is that tournament that Brazilian’s teams play but Boca wins.
The football wasn’t flamboyant. Bianchi’s army made its mark by playing better away from La Bombonera. And we’re talking about a team with creative forces as Juan Roman Riquelme (arguably the best midfielder of his genereation), Diego Cagna, Cristian Ledesma and Guillermo Barros Schelotto. They had goalscorers in Chelo Delgado, Martín Palermo and later, Carlos Tevez.
You could feel the resentment in the air of South America. Every club wanted to be Boca Juniors. They were a symbol of the Argentinians’ power. Not only in football. Enjoying the growth of economy and with the monetary parity (1 peso = 1 US dollar), the people were able again to fulfill their dream of being Europeans (or to think they were). In vacations, they would occupy every inch of Brazilian beaches and spend money as there was no tomorrow.
Boca Juniors were the cream of football. Argentina was the cream of South America.
But the prosperity was a bubble about to burst. As always happens in economics. The country pratically went bankrupt and a monumental crisis knocked on the door. In footballing terms, the semifinal defeat at the hands of Fluminense, in 2008, was the last breathe of Boca Juniors, at least for a while. Once again, la mitad mas uno was the mirror of Argentina. Sunk in debt and without their saviour Mauricio Maccri (the millionaire who took the club to glory as president nowadays is mayor of Buenos Aires), the board seems to have not the slightest clue about what to do. Boca had five managers in the last two years. Claudio Borghi was fired after the commitment of the capital sin: being defeated in the Superclassico. A match against River that epitomized the problems of these eternal rivals. A dull, boring and unattractive match of football. Boca finished 12th. River, after two years of horrrible campaigns, was 4th. None of them will be seen in this year’s Copa Libertadores.
On the field, Boca’s problems begin with the board’s refusal to choose: Roman Riquelme or Martín Palermo. Once friends, the two stars can’t stand each other any longer. “I’m not going there. If I go and talk to Martín, Roman will be angry. If I talk to Roman, Martín will be angry. I can’t win. So I’m going to stay away”, said Tevez, when asked last year if he was going to visit his friends at Casa Amarilla (Yellow House, Boca’s training complex).
It’s really a hard choice and not only because they are the images of a glorious past . Riquelme spend more time nursing injuries than on the field but his vision, skill to pass the ball and set-pieces can still be second to none. It’s important to write also that his ego has become bigger than La Bombonera itself.
Yes, Palermo knows the path to the goal (he scored eight at the last Apertura), but he monopolizes the attention of his colleagues. He needs service inside the box all the time and frustrates the development of young players in desperate need of playing time. As Lucas Viatri, for example. Tall, strong and with a good eye for the goal, the 23 years’ old has become bored of sitting on the bench.
Desperate times need desperate measures but Boca will again kick-off the Argentinian Championship (there are two each season: Apertura and Clausura) this Sunday, against Godoy Cruz, trying to find its way. If you think about how unforeseeable is the local football (eight different champions in the last eight tournaments), the mythical Boca Juniors could come to sight again. But it would be a huge surprise.
Editor - Since this piece was written, Boca went down 4-1 to Godoy Cruz in their opening game of the season, a result that sent shockwaves through the country.